By Rajan Philips –
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a surprising announcement last Thursday of her decision to stand down as Prime Minister and retire from politics. Five years ago, on 26 October 2017, Ms. Arden, aged 37, became the youngest female Head of Government in the world. With her retirement announcement at the age of 42, she might be setting another record as the youngest person to voluntarily retire from political office.
The late Indian journalist Frank Moraes once called Indira Gandhi (whose 57th anniversary of becoming India’s first female PM also fell on Thursday, 19th January) “the only man among the old women of the Congress.” Mr. Moraes was echoing the presumption of his age that for a woman to be in politics, she must first be like a man. And a week or unsuccessful male politician was invariably a woman. Jacinda Arden defined a different age.
There have been a number of female political leaders and Heads of Governments before Jacinda Arden, there are quite a few of them now, and many, many more will come in the future. Many of them, past, fitted the ‘only-man’ model for women in politics. Arden was different. She was asked at her retirement press conference about the “traits to make a good prime minister. “Empathy,” she replied and went on, “If you ask someone of my generation what they believe a politician to be and to name some of the traits, I doubt they would list kindness, doubt they would list empathy. But I hope the next generation does.”
She said more, “unless you can work to comprehend the experience of others it is very hard to deliver solutions and respond to crises without that starting point. That has been a really important principle for me.” Asked how she would like New Zealanders to remember her, she replied, “as someone who always tried to be kind.”
Ms. Arden exemplified a female-human approach to politics and public life, projecting ‘soft power’; as opposed to the old and often contrived male-heroic approach showing off bully power. Brecht told us “unhappy the land that needs heroes.” Worse for the land that will even take fake heroes. But the craving for heroes has not ended, nor has the self-promotion of scoundrels as heroic saviours. There are a quite a few of them in world polities regardless of the forms of government they contend over. Too many, in fact, for the general good. Jacinda Arden was an exception. Too few like her, sadly, for the general good.
Arden is only the second elected leader in human history to give birth to a child while in office. The first was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. But the late Benazir Bhutto was more in the Indira Gandhi mould, and she also separated work and home like men, even though many of them would not separate church and state as they must. Ms. Bhutto was no feminist, and Pakistani feminists uncharitably mocked her, expanding the abbreviation PPP of (her family’s) Pakistan Peoples Party, as Permanently Pregnant Prime Minister.
Three months after becoming Prime Minister, Ardern announced that she was pregnant, and took six weeks parental leave after the birth of her daughter in June 2018. She had appointed Winston Peters to be Acting Prime Minister during her absence. In September, she became the first woman and world leader to attend the UN General Assembly with her three month old daughter Neve and her partner Clarke Gayford who paid his way to babysit while the mother of his child addressed the UN Assembly. Contrast with other world leaders, and there are plenty of them in Sri Lanka, who never miss an opportunity to fly the world with family and friends at other people’s expense.
Ardent was graceful in announcing her exit and practical in explaining it. She called the opportunity to lead one’s country an “enormous privilege.” And with privilege comes responsibility, “including the responsibility to know when you’re the right person to lead, and also when you’re not,” she said. “I have given my absolute all to being Prime Minister,” she went on, “ but it has also taken a lot out of me. You cannot and should not do the job unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unplanned and unexpected challenges that inevitably come along.” In her own self-assessment, she no longer had “that bit extra in the tank to do the job justice. It’s that simple.” But it needs humility, strength and character, not attributes you would expect from wretched barnacles.
Not all men are wretched. Two centuries ago in America, George Washington started a tradition by retiring after two terms as President. Now, those who get elected as Presidents are constitutionally retired from the presidency after two terms. Except Donald Trump who wants elections denied and the Constitution changed to suit his whims. Nelson Mandela stepped down after one term to create a tradition of democratic transition in post-Apartheid South Africa. His example and his sacrifice have been lost on his successors. Again, too few of them in today’s world.
Asked for her finest moments, Arden pointed to climate change and her steering New Zealand to adopt zero carbon legislation, and her commitment to tackling the socioeconomic conditions of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people and offering them co-governance. She won international acclaim and admiration among Muslims for her response and leadership after the March 2019 shooting at two Christchurch mosques in which 51 people died and 49 were injured. Addressing parliament after visiting Muslim mourners in Christchurch, she refused to utter the name of the attacker, keeping him “nameless” and preferring to “speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them.”
She again caught the world’s attention with her leadership in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic that left New Zealand an oasis of safety in an over infected planet. But the harsh measures her government took and the economic downturns after Covid eventually took a toll on her and the government’s popularity. As a woman, she has had her share of attacks by right wing freedom nuts and misogynists.
According to New Zealand’s Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, Jacinda Arden has been subjected to “constant personalisation and vilification” in the most “demeaning form of politics we have ever seen.” In the opinion of columnist Vera Alves, no other Prime Minister in history has had to deal “with the level of vitriol Ardern has had to put up with on a regular, exhausting basis.”
Even though the governing Labour Party is trailing badly in the polls, the retiring Prime Minister is insistent that she is not leaving politics because Labour might lose the election in October, and she believes that her Party can and will win the election without her. She is proud of her record and the ambitious agenda that her government has delivered on, “while responding to some of the biggest threats to the health and economic wellbeing of New Zealanders, arguably since World War Two.”
Jacinda Anand was a breath of fresh air in an era when politics came to be dominated by charlatans and tricksters like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro; climate laggards like Scott Morrison; Muslim haters like Narendra Modi; corrupt nationalists like Netanyahu and Rajapaksas; and entrenched autocrats like Putin and Xi Jinping. She was only the Prime Minister of a small country of five million people, but she projected the aura of soft power.
Privileging co-option over coercion, empathy over enmity, reason over rhetoric, persuasion over propaganda, consultation over demagoguery, and diplomacy over military might. More than anything else, she showed that there are soft alternatives to unnecessarily hard choices. Rejecting one’s indispensability is a hard personal decision. At 42, Jacinda Arden has shown that she has the strength and the character to make that decision and retire.